Thursday, March 21, 2013

If the Earth Had a Facebook Page, Would You Friend It?

“If we survive as a species, it will have nothing to do with what we’ve invented, developed or manufactured, but everything to do with what we know in our deep cores about being good mammals.” — Brooke Williams in Half Lives

In spring the senses wake up again. Skin kept under wraps all winter is once again massaged by the warm fingers of sunshine. Eyes accustomed to browns, grays, and whites are startled by the screaming yellow of daffodils and marsh marigolds, the purple heads of crocuses, the tender green of new leaves everywhere. The scent of daphne pools around the front door to greet anyone who comes up the sidewalk. Excited birds trill and twitter as they slice through the yard in pursuit of newly emerged bugs. Spring peepers out at the wetland a quarter mile away set the air vibrating as I lie in bed at night.

Springtime reminds us that reality is multisensory and that we are animals of the senses after all. And yet more and more of us spend increasing amounts of time in the unisensory world of the flat screen. The world that passes before us there seems rich, varied, and entrancing, luring us from one fascinating vista to another, as if we were monkeys swinging through the forest from branch to branch. It’s easy to become entranced and even, frankly, addicted. In fact, “online activities tap into deep neurological mechanisms,” reported an article in the New York Times (23 July 2012) entitled “Silicon Valley Says Step Away from the Device.”

According to that article, “Eric Schiermeyer, a co-founder of Zynga, an online game company and maker of huge hits like FarmVille, has said he has helped addict millions of people to dopamine, a neurochemical that has been shown to be released by pleasurable activities, including video game playing, but also is understood to play a major role in the cycle of addiction.” At the same time, Schiermeyer believes “that people already craved dopamine and that Silicon Valley was no more responsible for creating irresistible technologies than, say, fast-food restaurants were responsible for making food with such wide appeal.”

I depend on screens for my livelihood. Google has given me this blog to post my thoughts on. I compose them in front of a screen, and you’re reading them from a screen. But I also feel as if my brain has been subtly rewired by the Internet. It’s harder for me to concentrate than it used to be, and I feel a subtle sense of anxiety that I’m missing something if I’m not checking my email and following every link that friends forward to me. I draw the line at Facebook. I don’t have a Facebook page because I’m afraid it would tether me further to the computer. And given a choice between sitting here and going outside, I’d rather go outside.

The New York Times article goes on: “Stuart Crabb, a director in the executive offices of Facebook . . . said his primary concern was that people live balanced lives. At the same time, he acknowledges that the message can run counter to Facebook’s business model, which encourages people to spend more time online. ‘I see the paradox,’ he said.”

The gist of the article is that while Silicon Valley executives see the dimensions of what their products are doing to people’s brains, while they see “their collective power to lure consumers to games or activities that waste time or distract them,” and while they feel uneasy about this, they aren’t sure they have a responsibility to do anything about it. Some of them don’t see a problem, even though the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible on mental illnesses, plans to include “Internet use disorder” in its appendix this year. They are telling people we need to manage our lives to make sure we slow down and step away from our screens.

Richard Fernandez, an executive coach at Google, “said the risks of being overly engaged with devices were immense. ‘It’s nothing less than everything,’ he said, adding that if people can find time to occasionally disconnect, ‘we can have more intimate and authentic relationships with ourselves and those we love in our communities.’”

And with nature, I might add.

I took time off last year to attend yoga teacher training. I want to remember how to be embodied. I want to spend more of my time in a multisensory world and less in a unisensory one. I want to remember that what happens in the garden, what is happening right now while I’m sitting here typing away, is ultimately more important to the future of the world than what I’m doing right now.

I’m with Brooke Williams. I think if we survive as a species, it won’t ultimately be because of our smartphones, tablets, laptops, and flat screen TVs. It will be because we have remembered how to be good animals, animals who come out of our dens in the springtime, sniff the air, and let ourselves feel stirred by the beauty of the earth.


  1. So, I sit here in front of my computer screen after spending hours in front of the TV, watching the NCAA's "Elite Eight" round of March Madness. But I also went for a 5-mile walk today in bright last-day-of-March sunshine, while serenaded by chickadees and redpolls. And I may try to sneak in a shorter walk as the sun drops toward the horizon. It is indeed a challenging balance to find, especially for a self-described nature writer (and thus one who uses a computer for writing, research, and email exchanges tied to various projects): time spent with the real world vs. the virtual one. I too can sense the rewiring of the brain, connected to our "wired-in" (and wired-up) world. I find that it helps to remind myself that my most memorable moments, the ones that stay with me, are those spent in direct connection with people and the larger world. Computers and other forms of technology can be important tools (and play things, I suppose), but they can also be energy and time-sucking black holes. So it goes in the early 21st century. Thanks for your musings, Lorraine. I think I'll go outside and share the good company of chickadees.

  2. Nice, Lorraine. It is important to remember, and practice, our animal nature.

  3. ...lovely little essay. Eggers in "The Circle" also makes an interesting point about how, if one is subsumed by the online experience, one increasingly becomes intolerant of the perceived slowness of actual life. The main character is perturbed beyond reason by people who are offline & who can't respond instantly to sent emails, for example. Bill S. above makes a great point also - can you even imagine a "most memorable moment" that featured you sitting in front of a screen??